Sunday, October 30, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Martha Marcy May Marlene (written and directed by Sean Dirken) is an independent film that's gotten a lot of well deserved buzz since the summer and may receive a Oscar nomination for both Elizabeth Olsen playing the title role of Martha / Marcy May as well as, in a field of ten, possibly a nomination for Best Picture.  Parents note that this is a dark picture with definitely adult themes/concerns.  A teen would probably not get it.  Still for families with children or sibblings who've been estranged or wayward or even had been part of a cult, this movie would be excellent.

The movie begins with Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen) having just escaped a small cult residing on a farm in the Catskills Mountains of central New York.  Having ditched the farm (and successfully evaded other members of the cult running out to look for her) she comes into a small town from which she calls her older sister, Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) who seems both surprised and generally happy to hear from her.  It's been two years since Martha has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.  Lucy offers to pick her up and takes her then to the palacial cottage that Lucy and her husband, Ted (played by Hugh Dancy), have rented for a part of the summer.  The two have been apart so long that Martha doesn't know Ted, and Ted only from what Lucy had told him about her.

It has been said that a useful definition of "culture" is that it's like "the water through which a fish swims.  It's something that the fish takes for granted until it finds itself in another pond."  Having lived two years in a cult with very different communitarian values -- subsistance living, sharing of goods, indeed, sharing of bodies -- again, parents take note... -- Martha's a definite fish out of water in Lucy and Ted's clearly materialistic lifestyle, and even though she was picked-up penniless by Lucy and taken to live with her and Ted for a few weeks while she gets her bearings, Martha is certainly judgemental about how the two live.  Perhaps it'd be something akin to a Spartan suddenly finding oneself living in the seemingly palatial home of a "mere merchant" in Athens in classical Greece.

It takes a while for Lucy to figure out that Martha needed a lot more help than she initially thought.  Martha wasn't merely running away from "some boyfriend."  She was ecaping a whole (foreign) way of life. 

How did this all come about?  How did Martha find herself brought into a cult to begin with?  Through both  flashbacks and dialogue, the story is told.  

From dialogue we learn that Lucy and Martha had been largely raised by their mother.  Their father had apparently been abusive in some way (or in a number of ways) to either the girls or their mother. This was not clear but the result was that their mother had split with their father and they were mostly raised by her.  Now Lucy was already away in college when their mother fell ill and died.  Martha then was raised for the remaining of her teenage years by their aunt (Martha asks Lucy if their aunt was at her and Ted's wedding).  One gets the sense that as soon as she was old enough, Martha split from her aunt and went on her own.

From flashbacks, we see that it was a friend of Martha's, Zoe (played by Luisa Krause), who introduces her to the community living out on a farm in the Catskills and led by a charismatic and manipulative leader named Patrick (played by John Hawkes).  What does the cult believe in?  In simple subsistance living, sharing of goods, basically free/shared sex, and then the specialness of their leader. 

To its credit, the movie does show the attractive aspects of this lifestyle -- the members of the community did care for each other, everyone was given the opportunity to "find their place" in the community and the members of the community did share basically everything.  The women in particular, slept on mattresses strewn in one large room in the farm house.  Their clothes basically hung on one rack of dresses in a closet that they all shared from.  Everyone cooked together, ate together, worked the farm together.  And yes, they slept with each other (the men apparently had separate rooms) as they wished, together.  The one rule though was that the leader, Patrick, ruled over it all.

However, the creepiness of the "all powerful ruler" came to seep into just about every aspect of the others lives.  Zoe introduces Martha to Patrick as Martha.  He responds, "You look to me like a Marcy May," (RED FLAG) which becomes her name in the group (BIG RED FLAG).  After a period of getting accustomed to the place, initiation, at least of the women required having sex with Patrick (EVEN BIGGER RED FLAG).  Now it's clear in the film that most of the women would have actually given themselves willingly to the apparently kind, charismatic and "caring" Patrick anyway.  However, the women are ritually drugged (HUGE RED FLAG), without their knowing it (UNBELIEVABLY LARGE RED FLAG), for the encounter anyway (SUPER-DOOPER LARGE RED FLAG).

After Martha apparently had some difficulty "processing" this initiatory sexual encounter with Patrick complaining to Zoe "I don't remember any of it anyway," a somewhat miffed Patrick picks up a guitar during one of the community's relaxing "together times" and dedicates the song he was about to sing to Marcy May, and begins singing: "She's just a picture, I have hanging on my wall, nothing else, nothing more..."  (THERE JUST AIN'T A RED FLAG BIG ENOUGH). 

Seriously folks, if someone actually says that "you're nothing but an object hanging on his/her wall," DON'T WALK AWAY, RUN.  But alas, it took Martha some time longer to make the break.  Besides probably at the time, some of the other (more communitarian) aspects of her life there probably made her stay.

But the creepiness did not go away.  Some readers here may come to wonder.  With all that sex apparently going on at this place, would this produce pregnancies?  Apparently so.  But the only children being raised were Patrick's (were the other children being conceived being aborted?) and the only children being kept were boys (were Patrick's girls being killed, or, perhaps being put up for adoption?) 

None of this seemed to pursuade Martha to leave.  What appears to have done so was Martha's realization that the whole lifestyle, subsistence that it was, still depended on crime, stealing from neighbors.  And with repeated break-ins, come other bridges to cross... 

So Martha resolves to leave.  And she does so, sort of.  Can she really leave (psychicly, if certainly physically)?  And can her sister and her yuppie husband really come to understand what world she was coming from? 

Again, anyone with an estranged child or sibbling could perhaps benefit from reflecting on this movie, at least from a distance.  Certainly, not every estranged child/sibbling would necessarily have "joined a cult."  However, the dynamics could be actually quite similar.  Clearly there are aspects of the life that the estranged person has taken on that are attractive even fulfilling to that person.  One just hopes that the creepiness of other aspects of that lifestyle don't come to overwhelm the good/attractive aspects.  And ultimately no lifestyle can be truly good if other significant relations are excluded or if one is not free to leave.

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1 comment:

  1. Fr. Dennis

    just encountered your blog looking for reviews of Martha Marcy May Marlene. I teach college writing and had the happy experience of selecting and quoting an entire paragraph from your writing as an example of great everyday writing from which the reader feels compelled to learn and respond (You wrote: "It has been said that a useful definition of 'culture' is that it's like "the water through which a fish swims.").

    i will definitely be back and I salute you on a sunny day here in quiet and mostly peace-filled Buffalo, NY with a prayer for you and your beleagured by violence and poverty and culture-breakdown (not in that order, I think: poverty is the root, along with the greed at my/our end that countenances poverty as 'the price we pay, [fake] Alas!'.

    anyway, Padre, you write and think and feel and I am grateful to have found you and your voice.

    Tom Joyce